NEW DELHI: India has reached out to a number of countries in an effort to fast-track Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative’, enunciated at the East Asia Summit in Bangkok earlier this month. SNI learns that a comprehensive note prepared by the Ministry of External Affairs has been forwarded to Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam for their comments.
The paper sets out “seven pillars” that are at the heart of the ‘Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative’ and are also in line with Sustainable Goal 14 that calls on the world to conserve and sustainably use the maritime domain. These are:
Enhance maritime security
Promote free, fair & mutually beneficial trade/maritime transport
Reduce disaster risk
Preserve marine resources
Build safeguards against plastic litter
Enhance science, technology & academic cooperation
The idea is that one or two countries could take the lead in driving work on a particular pillar. Other interested countries could join. This would make it a cooperative venture, functioning in a transparent and inclusive manner. India, for its part, is prepared to take the lead in maritime security and disaster risk management and is willing to partner with other interested countries. This would tie in with the fourth Maritime Security Workshop in February 2020 (under the rubric of the East Asia Summit) which India will be co-hosting with Australia and Indonesia. The workshop could hammer out a plan of action that would feed into the UN’s World Oceans Day conference in Lisbon in June next year.
The initiative is envisaged on the platform of the East Asia Summit, thereby underscoring ASEAN centrality. In India’s view (and in the view of much of the world), this means upholding ASEAN’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and the application of international law (UNCLOS) to the maritime domain.
It carries the risk of raising China’s hackles given that Beijing has been making untenable claims to the South China, raising islands and deploying its military on them, threatening and intimidating littoral states. China’s actions could come under considerable international scrutiny and pressure, with possibly other consequences.
PM Modi’s initiative also plans to build on the 2017 ASEAN Regional Forum statement against “Illegal, Unreported and Unlicensed Fishing”. India is prepared to host an event on this larger security issue since it concerns livelihood security and food security. Coastal states across Africa, Asia and the Pacific are demanding action against countries that are decimating fish stocks in their waters.
A major culprit here (surprise, surprise) is China. An investigation published by National Geographic in October this year titled “The Sea is Running Out of Fish Despite Nations Pledges to Stop It”, cited China’s overseas fleet of 3000 fishing vessels roaming the oceans “from Africa to the Antarctic to the Pacific”. It said nearly half the fish caught in 2014 “ended in the holds of Chinese and Taiwanese vessels”.
The investigation quoted researchers of the University of British Columbia saying that “China provides the most (fishing) subsidies than any other nation—some $7.2 billion in 2018 accounting for 21 per cent of global support”. The researchers warned that China, over the last decade, had more than doubled its subsidies on fuel or boat building, which are seen as harmful subsidies. If the money had been spent on sustainable management of fisheries, there would not have been any problem.
Although China has pledged to cap its fishing fleet at 3000 vessels and cut fuel subsidies by next year, there is concern that Europe, perhaps taking its cue from Beijing, is expanding its fishing fleets. Prime Minister’s Oceans Initiative is therefore timely. It also takes into account the security of India’s own fishing grounds. Although Chinese fishing vessels appear to be steering clear of Indian waters, it could change as China’s naval profile in the Indian Ocean continues its steady rise.
Final point. The Oceans Initiative (and what follows thereafter), comes on the heels of the first ministerial meeting of the Quad in September in New York. What was articulated at the end of that meeting pretty much mirrors what is now being sought to be implemented.